Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Worlds Literature Festival 2015:
5 Putting the octopus back in the suitcase

Travels with my octopus

The last provocations, on Friday were by the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, and the British publisher, David Graham.

Elif Shafak’s provocation followed on from Sigitas’s in that it concerned political responsibility.  Politcs shouts: art whispers, she said, but where words are banned they hang around longer. Everyone was a secret novelist - once they used to be secret poets - but publishing work critical of one’s nation - as Sigitas too had done - particularly publishing in the west, could make one hated. 

The three most dangerous things in Turkey, she argued, were guns, bombs and books. Islam respected the sacred book but did not always read it. Menstruating women were forbidden to touch it.  

According to Muslim belief each person had two angels on their shoulders: in other words each person had two books in them, one good, one bad. The act of writing was angelic but also regarded as an object of fear and suspicion. This amounted to a cognitive gap. Printing came late to the Islamic world, she continued, as late as the eighteenth century, but even then it could be controlled by the religious establishment. Oral literature could prosper but the written word was under controlled. This amounted to another cognitive gap. 

Milan Kundera regarded life under despotism as a tunnel that would somewhere have a light at the end of it, but in a state that was not quite despotic nor quite democratic either, the tunnel could go on for ever. From this point her provocation became a call for writers to become more active. Disengagement was a luxury we cannot afford, she said, oddly mirroring the formulation of the leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew who, some fifty years before, had declared that poetry was a luxury Singapore couldn’t afford. The task of writers was to add complexity to simplistic political narratives. They do this through stories and particularly novels because the novel form is bigger than, say, the poem, and can accommodate more. We don’t want analysis after the event, we want it during the event. This was a matter of urgency.

Anna wondered if having a reputation abroad protected the writer (I suppose she meant Orhan Pamuk, but can’t be sure of that). Elif replied that the Armenian genocide began with the killing of writers and that she herself received far more hate mail for tweeting in English than in Turkish. Kirsty Gunn (who had joined us) wondered whether novels ever did tell simple stories and remarked on the danger of identity politics. Deborah Smith said that in Korea it was the short story that was most popular and questioned the tyranny of the novel. Elif replied that the value of the novel lies in multiplicity, in its ability to voice nuances by deploying various voices. It was well fitted to question tabus. Some 40% of novels in Turkish bookshops, she told us, were western writers in translation. But distinctions between high and low culture were not worth making and, she added, the Turkish language had been purged of its ‘impurities’ a long time ago: nomadic language was perhaps more useful in resisting tabus. 

Susan Barker said it was very hard to tell the truth about politics in China and that international reputation was no protection. Dan wondered whether the tendency of modern communications, such as the tweet was not more effective. He point to Andrei Kurkov’s moves towards reportage and shorter fiction. Didn’t ISIS depend on very brief stories?  (GS: A recent article in the New Yorker on 8 June offered a long in-depth discussion of the uses and power of poetry in ISIS ideology). Kyoko noted certain resemblances between Turkey and Japan and was worried about the erosion of freedom of speech. Lucy emphasised the importance on non-fiction and the importance of history and journlism. Elif concluded by suggesting that we should all read each other’s genres, that we should elgage with politics. We should be world-citizens without being spokespersons.

After the battlecry and exhortation of Eli’s provocation David Graham’s overview of the publishing situation represented a considerable change in mood. Here the troops were generally in retreat and the central part of the battlefield was almost deserted.

The action was at the edges of the field. The big guns were at one end and the small rifles at the other. All the statistics showed a decline in the sales of literary books. The book trade as a whole still had a bigger share of the creative market than music and video games combined but this did not help literature where the mood was gloomy. The attention it got in the press was far greater than its share of the market justified. The bigger conglomerates needed to sell more commercial products so new and more experimental literature was being left on one side. 

This did not mean that the big publishers did not make a contribution it was just that they needed to maintain their balance sheets so an author who had not made a commercial impact after a couple of books would often be dropped from the list. It was the middle-sized publishers that were suffering financially. It was there the battlefield was being deserted. Sometimes they tried to make good by taking on non-literary authors such as Ricky Gervais or Harry Hill but these might not be enough. Author advances were being squeezed at both ends. Supermarkets dictated the terms under which they would stock a successful book and publishers could be sued if they were unprepared to supply extra copies when needed. 

The only growing part of the market was that developed by what David called micropublishers: Pushkin Press, Hesperus, And Other Stories, Salt, Peirene, Galley Beggar and so forth, though they worked on tiny margins and had to be very careful in judging their output, and if they did discover exciting authors those authors would quickly be snapped up by bigger publishers. It was a little like the case of small football clubs who become feeders for the big ones. All the same the small publishers were venturing into middle grouns and micropublishing was the future. Crowd funding or Kickstarting projects and community-building were important factors in success.

The questions were fewer here. Deborah S spoke of non-profit publishing. Lauren asked whether publishers might not shape taste as well as following it, but facts were facts. The micropresses were likely to remain feeders for the big ones so depended on the discovery of potentially major talents. In terms of reputation a micropress could develop its own reputation as well as that of some of its authors.

After my summing up, as in this text (bar the last salon) there were two terrific readings, by Susan Barker and Kirsty Gunn to end the day, then people drifted away to rest or to explore the city before the last meal of the symposium.


So when is a Birmingham Roller a burning umbrella? Was the octopus back in its suitcase? What does the proliferation of synonyms of reputation - fame, respect, recognition, success, prestige, stature, esteem, position, distinction, prominence. celebrity, stardom, importance, influence, brand - tell us

And what of value? What is it? How do we know it? How develop it? Achieve it? How do we arrive at the idea of it? Who are the we who arrive there or assess its possible arrival and achievement?  How far can we be sure of ourselves? On what grounds? How far can we persuade others and on what grounds? Are there common human qualities we can call on in respect of which we may assume common human consent? Does it matter that we should call on them? And what happens when we assume we shouldn’t?

A brief afterthought:


A man was tying his tongue into knots. It's so I don't forget to say the right thing, he said. Or tried to.
A little Cyrano might help us all. Part nose, part poetry, part swordsmanship. OK forget the swordsmanship. Forget the poetry. Keep the nose.
The grand rhetorical sweep. The oracular gesture. The big words putting their shoulders to the door. The bouncers letting them in.
A big hall crowded with people. A word creeps in on all fours and works its way between the feet, stands up, but can't speak.
If I say it, it will appear. If I add a verb, it will do as I say. If I add an adverb it will act in the best possible way. So it goes.
The octopus in the suitcase meets the squirrel in the secret garden. It is a day like any other. Now let's unpack the suitcase.

Here endeth the summing up of Worlds Literature Festival 2015. I have not given an account of the many excellent readings because to account for them all would be impossible and to select favourites invidious.

1 comment:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

We have a good Turkish friend called Elif. I have long intended to read Elif Shafak but have not yet got around to it. Re publishers, Jeff Bezos, the boss of Amazon, thinks that most publishers are the authors of their own misfortune because they are motivated far more by snobbery than commercial nous. I am strongly inclined to agree with him possibly because my own experiences with British poetry publishers have largely been horrendous.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish